3 herbs for good ginger, digestion peppermint & aloe

For many of us, a healthy and well-functioning gastrointestinal tract is one of life's pleasures. Charles Copeland put it well when he said: "To eat is human, to digest, divine." Not everyone, though, enjoys the luxury of good digestion. If yours is not always divine, consider the following three herbs as possible solutions.
1. Ginger

What happens to you when you walk into a kitchen where gingerbread is baking, or, when you enter a Thai restaurant where slices of freshly cut ginger are sizzling in a wok? Most of us are pleasantly warmed by the smell of ginger; many even salivate at the mere aroma of this pungent and exotic herb. That warmth and salivary stimulation is what gives ginger its medicinal effect.

Native to Southeast Asia, Zingiber officinale is now cultivated around the world, including such places as India, China, the West Indies, and Africa. Its tan, gnarly rhizome has long been a familiar figure in Asian grocery stores, and, today, can be found in the produce section of most markets. Candied ginger, powdered ginger, ginger tea, ginger juice, capsules, and tinctures number among the many forms this plant, as food and as medicine, takes m modern life.

As a medicine, ginger is perhaps best known for its anti-nausea properties.

"Ginger root against seasickness -- A controlled trial on the open sea" is the title of a 1988 study conducted on 80 Danish naval cadets, training in rough, open waters. With empathy, it's easy to imagine the young lads, described in the article as "unaccustomed to sailing in heavy seas," as nervous, excited, some perhaps downright frightened, bouncing around on the decks of a steel naval vessel, popping ginger capsules and monitoring their symptoms of seasickness: vomiting, cold sweats, nausea, and vertigo.

The Danish naval cadet study concluded that ginger was significantly beneficial in reducing seasickness. Its particular value was for the symptoms of vomiting and cold sweating. Further studies confirm ginger's effectiveness in the treatment of nausea. In 1990, the Department of Anesthesia at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London published a study examining ginger's use as an antiemetic (something used to prevent, ease, or stop vomiting) after gynecologic surgery. Sixty women participated in the research, which concluded that ginger root was effective in reducing post-operative nausea.

In 1993, the Anesthesia Department of another British hospital, Kingston Hospital in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, published study results concluding that "Zingiber officinale is an effective and promising prophylactic antiemetic, which may be especially useful for day case surgery." A 1998 Indian study indicates that ginger may well be useful in improving the nausea and vomiting side effects of chemotherapy.

Ginger owes its action to its volatile oils and to its phenols, gingerol, zingerone, and shogaol. These constituents give ginger its stimulating and antiemetic properties; they work together to warm the stomach and to reduce intestinal gas and pain.

Traditionally, ginger has been known as a "hot bitter," heating and stimulating to the gastrointestinal tract. During the 18th century, it was frequently employed by Eclectic physicians to disguise the taste of nauseating herbs. Ginger tea and tincture were used to break up a mucus-heavy cold, to encourage the onset of sluggish menses, and to reduce the pain of menstrual cramps. The Eclectics also cherished ginger as an effective medicine for the elderly who suffered from what was termed "feeble" digestion.

As with any medicine, ginger isn't a panacea for everyone with digestive complaints. As a hot and stimulating herb, ginger is contraindicated in those who suffer from ulcers, heartburn, and spastic colon diseases. Instead, people with a "hot" digestive system might well consider the following herb, Mentha piperita, or peppermint.
2. Peppermint.

Mentha piperita, commonly known as peppermint, is one of the oldest medicinal plants. While its origins are theoretically rooted in Eastern Asia, the plant has been cultivated all over the world. Peppermint propagates asexually by sending out roots, useful for the perpetuation of the species, but a nightmare for those trying to rid their garden of this herb.

Peppermint was the first plant that I, as a tiny child and budding herbalist, got to know. Peppermint flourished in the herb garden outside our kitchen, and, according to my mother, was supposed to contain itself within a small 2x2-foot area. At the age of 4, it became my job to see that the peppermint obeyed this edict, a task I quickly learned was impossible. With amazing tenacity, the peppermint evaded all attempts at elimination through weeding, and even managed to gain a foothold in gardens outside its domain. Not one to resort to chemicals or other brutal means, my mother finally agreed to live with the prolific mint, busying herself with making huge pots of peppermint iced tea all through the summer, and giving away fresh cuttings and dried leaves whenever possible.

Peppermint's medicinal action is very different from that of ginger. According to Rudolph Weiss, author of the classic Herbal Medicine, peppermint has three principal activities: it anaesthetizes the mucous membranes, reducing nausea and vomiting; it encourages the liver and gallbladder to produce and release bile; and it "disinfects" the stomach in cases of improper or imbalanced flora.

In contrast to ginger, peppermint is a cooling and relaxing herb. In fact, its anaesthetic properties come from the plant's ability to excite cold receptors in intestinal mucous membranes. Peppermint is medicinally useful for reducing such disorders of the gastrointestinal tract as spastic colon, irritable bowel syndrome, and spastic diarrhea. Peppermint taken after a rich meal will reduce gas and indigestion.

Tincture and tea are the most common methods of administration. Modernly, enteric coated (thus by-passing absorption in the stomach and allowing the medicine to reach the intestines) peppermint oil capsules have been found quite effective in the treatment of lower intestinal disorders, such as spastic colon. Peppermint tea is safe to use on a short-term basis in babies with colic, and it is often a tolerable form of treatment for nausea in children and reluctant teenagers.

Peppermint also has medicinal uses beyond digestive ailments. Its antispasmodic properties and pleasant taste make it a useful addition to cough formulas. The plant's relaxing properties make it helpful in cases of nervous insomnia and restlessness. Externally, peppermint is used to relieve muscle and arthritic pain, and as a local treatment for fungal infections of the skin.
3. Aloe.

Though also a bitter herb, aloe, unlike ginger and peppermint, is a powerful laxative when used internally. Aloe contains anthraquinone glycosides, known as "aloins," and resins. Its actions are cathartic (causing a bowel movement), emmenagogic (stimulating and promoting menstrual flow), and vermifugal (expelling worms).

Because of these actions, aloe must not be used internally in pregnancy, and should be avoided by those with a serious intestinal disease, such as ulcerative colitis, or with bleeding disorders, such as gastritis or hemorrhoids. Nursing mothers should also avoid aloe because its use may cause diarrhea in a breast-fed infant. Overdoses of aloe can cause intestinal distress, diarrhea, and even kidney problems; therefore, it is imperative to be thoughtful and cautious in the internal use of aloe.

By far, aloe's best use is as an occasional laxative for stubborn constipation. Because the plant takes between 10-15 hours to work, aloe is best given in the early evening in order to assure early morning elimination. Aloe is very often used in combination with a carminative herb, such as ginger. Adding carminatives to an aloe preparation results in the toning down of aloe's "griping" effect, allowing the body to eliminate stool effectively and without pain.

As with any laxative, overuse can result in a loss of intestinal tone, and in a dependence upon the laxative. Judicious use is important. I recommend a regular habit of such things as plenty of water and high-fiber foods to avoid constipation. Reserve aloe for those times when stressors such as travel, medication use, and emotional issues make constipation unavoidable.

Topically, aloe has remarkable uses lot the external conditions of burns, sunburn, and bug bites, and, in this regard, it can be used freely. An easy herb to grow, aloe is a great kitchen plant. Many families keep aloes around as a live first-aid kit; in the event of a burn or an annoying insect bite, tear off a small piece of aloe leaf, slit it open, and rub the juice directly on the skin. In many cases, one application will be all that is needed.

In cases of serious burns, or chemical or surgical procedures to the skin, consult a physician before applying aloe to the skin. Studies show that aloe may irritate skin which is already significantly damaged.

A program for digestive health. Good digestion is a function of many things: the food you eat, the water you drink, emotional wellness, the environment in which you live, your genetic background, and your overall health. While all of these must be taken into account when putting together a program for digestive health, don't forget to try for yourself, and include, the appropriate herbs. In my experience, they can perform minor miracles in restoring that oh-so-delightful "divine digestion."

PHOTO (COLOR): Jamison Starbuck

Bone, M.E., et al. "Ginger root -- a new anti-emetic. The effect of ginger root on postoperative nausea and vomiting after major gynaecological surgery," Anesthesia 45(8):669-71, August 1990

Felter, H.W. The Eclectic Materia, Pharmacology and Therapeutics. Portland, Ore.: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1985.

Grontved, A., et al. "Ginger root against seasickness A controlled trial on the open sea," Acta Otolaryngologica 105(1-2);45-9, Jan-Feb 1988

Hoffman, David. The Holistic Herbal. The Park, Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Press, 1983

Liu, J.H., et al. "Enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome: a prospective, randomized trial," Journal of Gastroenterology 32(6):765-8, December 1997.

Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine London, England: Arkana, 1993.

Phillips, S., et al. "Zingiber officinale (ginger) -- an anti-emetic for day case surgery," Anesthesia 48(8):715-7, August 1993.

Sharma, S.S., et al. "Reversal of cisplatin-induced delay in gastric emptying in rats by ginger," Journal of Ethnopharmacology 62(1):40-55, August 1998.

Weiss, R.F. Herbal Medicine. Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Publishers, 1988


By J. Jamison Starbuck, J.D., N.D.

Adapted by J.D., N.D.

Jamison Starbuck, J.D., N.D., is a licensed naturopathic and homeopathic physician. Her Missoula (Montana)-based family practice treats the whole person via constitutional homeopathy, botanical medicine, nutrition, counseling, and other natural modalities. Dr. Starbuck is also a consulting editor for Time-Life Books.

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